Robert Novak

 WASHINGTON -- During George W. Bush's keynote address to the 40th anniversary black-tie banquet of the American Conservative Union (ACU) last week, diners rose repeatedly to applaud the president's remarks. But one man kept his seat through the 40-minute oration. It was no liberal interloper but conservative stalwart Donald Devine.

 As ACU vice chairman, Devine was privileged to be part of a pre-dinner head-table reception with President Bush. However, Devine chose not to shake hands with the president. Furthermore, he is one of about 20 percent of Republicans that polls classify as not committed to voting for Bush's re-election.

 The conventional wisdom portrays the latest Zogby Poll's 81 percent of Republican voters committed to Bush as reflecting extraordinary loyalty to the president by the GOP base. Actually, when nearly one out of five Republicans cannot flatly say they support Bush, that could spell defeat in a closely contested election. When Don Devine is among those one out of five, it signifies that the president's record does not please all conservatives.

 In a time of crisis in Iraq, Bush spent more than an hour at the J.W. Marriott Hotel Thursday night to celebrate the ACU's anniversary and woo his conservative base. His speech was crafted to evoke the maximum response from that audience. There was no mention of either "compassionate conservatism" or "no child left behind "

 Why, then, did Devine dismiss a consciously conservative speech as "long and boring"? At age 67, Devine has spent a lifetime as a party regular and faithful conservative. I first encountered him some 30 years ago when, as a University of Maryland political science professor, he was adviser and strategist for conservatives in rules fights at Republican national conventions. Directing President Reagan's Office of Personnel Management, he was one senior administration official who took seriously the Reagan Revolution. He was a political adviser in Bob Dole's presidential campaigns and ran himself for Congress and statewide office in Maryland.

 So, the question remains: Why would Devine stay seated at the ACU dinner when everybody else was standing and clapping? To begin with, he shares concern with many Republicans about what the U.S. is doing in Iraq and where it is going. Businessmen I have talked to recently exercise limited patience in how long they will tolerate the bloodshed and confusion.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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